On The Waterfront is by no means Marlon Brando’s most memorable film but there is one element of the 1954 flick that sticks in the mind – an absolute killer of a shearling flight jacket. It’s a brooding silhouette of unapologetic masculinity if ever there was one.
Then there’s James Dean’s turn at this timeless military garment in Giant two years later. Or who can forget Tom Hardy squeezing his obscene traps into a stunner of a flight jacket as the megalomaniacal Bane in The Dark Knight Rises?
Whether it’s the short silhouette or the military heritage, the flight jacket just oozes a refined sense of masculinity. If that sounds appealing, this guide is set to showcase the best iterations available today and how you can assimilate them into your wardrobe.
The History of the Flight Jacket
As with most timeless menswear silhouettes, military necessity has been the breeding ground for garment innovation, and the flight jacket is no exception. The A1 flight jacket, first worn by USAAF pilots in 1927, evolved into the A2 silhouette 14 years later and has been an irrepressible feature in menswear collections ever since.
Of course, there have been many bomber jackets and flight jackets since, but it was the A2 that was the blueprint for many of the bomber styles lining our collective wardrobes today.
Back in the 1940s, the A2 was typically constructed from horsehide, meaning it was super tough and nothing at all like the calfskin shearling iterations that luxury brands are pedalling now.
In fact, shearling styles only came about because of the progression in aviation technology, which meant that the new bomber craft from the late 1930s could fly at much higher altitudes, and thus much lower temperatures for the pilots. Hence, thick, warm shearling coats – in the form of the B3 jacket – were necessary to stay warm.
These behemoths of jackets were actually designed by an American aviator and stunt man called Leslie Irvin, who also invented the parachute ‘rip-cord’ system. Irvin used shearling from a Devon breed of sheep and added the huge collar, which is still a feature of many shearling jackets today.
As technology advanced after the Second World War, pilots were able to ditch the bulky jackets in favour of heated flight suits cut from lighter technical fabrics.
Types of Modern Flight Jacket
Although there have been quite a lot of flight jacket iterations over the past century, you can really narrow down the contemporary styles into two categories: shearling flight jackets and bomber jackets.
The former are of course iconic winter silhouettes, which the vast majority of luxury labels produce in some shape or form, as well as a number of specialist leather brands making faithful reproductions of the original models.
Many high-end designers are shifting away from shearling and opting for synthetic fleece linings these days, but if you ask us, a natural hide with a natural shearling lining is going to last you a lifetime, and probably your childrens’ too, if you take care of it properly.
Bomber jackets, on the other hand, are much more of a trans-seasonal style, often constructed from lightweight nylon or cotton and featuring a ribbed collar, cuffs and hem. Bombers have naturally assimilated into streetwear culture, having always been a feature of various subcultures (most notably the skinhead and punk movements) since the 1950s, and they even provided the blueprint for varsity jackets.
The Best Flight Jacket Brands
The super-skinny monochrome aesthetic of parisian fashion house Saint Laurent might not be your first thought when considering flight jackets, but the storied label has always been a masterful producer of high-end leather silhouettes, including flight jackets.
If you’re in the market for a luxury calfskin style with a part-shearling lining then Saint Laurent is definitely worth dropping a look. Moreover, it also produces a number of dressier bomber jacket styles, almost exclusively in black.
Elsewhere, while not strictly bombers, its varsity jacket options are for all intents and purposes bomber silhouettes, and are constructed in 90% virgin wool with leather details, perfect for fans of the luxury streetwear aesthetic.
Now under the artistic direction of Ib Kamara following the sad death of creative polymath Virgil Abloh, high-end streetwear label Off-White continues to innovate in the cross-genre space where it blends sportswear influences with contemporary tailored pieces.
Each season it produces a stellar cast of bomber jackets, usually embellished with patch logos and graphics, referencing the preppy varsity styles of old.
Chapal, which has been producing some of the industry’s finest leather jackets since it was founded in Paris in 1832, is the go-to house for exquisite luxury flight jackets.
In fact, it lays claim to making some of the very earliest iterations of the flight jacket as we know it, including the iconic 1965 version as worn by French heartthrob Alain Delon in Once a Thief.
If you’re searching for a flight jacket that will become an heirloom that you can pass down to your son, or simply frame as a work of art, then Chapal’s Colorado sheepskin B3 bomber is the pinnacle of aviation outerwear.
Fear of God
The Los Angeles-based brand founded by Jerry Lorenzo in 2013 has ridden high on the wave of contemporary minimalism, incorporating a stealth wealth aesthetic to streetwear silhouettes, not least the bomber jacket.
Fear of God’s bombers are monochromatic, pared-back silhouettes with a dearth of embellishments or details. The shape and fabric do all the talking, so if you love the bomber’s look but aren’t a fan of overt branding, Fear of God will be right up your street.
The bomber jacket was an intrinsic silhouette at Saint Laurent when Hedi Slimane was the creative director, so it figures that the designer would transport it to his latest assignment at Celine Homme, where it takes pride of place in his seasonal collections.
While the silhouettes are pretty faithful to the original MA-1 bombers, Slimane glitzes them up with satin fabrics, sequins and appliqué motifs for a much more glamorous and statement-making aesthetic.
British Sheepskin Company
Somerset isn’t likely to usurp London for a place on the fashion circuit anytime soon but if you’re in the market for a sheepskin leather flight jacket that faithfully references the earliest military iterations, then you’d be wise to take a trip down to the British Sheepskin Company.
This small operation isn’t by any means a ‘fashion’ brand, but its flight jackets represent insanely good value for money and are constructed beautifully using American sheepskin.
For a fraction of the price of a luxury brand, you’ll secure a timeless flight jacket that will last you a lifetime.
Cult favourite Stone Island has long been recognised for its innovative approach to fabrics, specifically of the technical variety, so it should come as no surprise that it produces a number of slick bomber jacket variants each and every season.
Lightweight but utility heavy thanks to unique pocket configurations, Stone Island’s bombers are as futuristic as they come, using garment dyed micro yarns, biological nylon and crinkle fabrics to create contemporary styles ideal for techwear wardrobes.
As far as investment flight jackets go, British brand Eastman Leather is well worth your consideration. Although the company has been around since 1984, it’s largely flown under the radar (pun intended) to everyone other than discerning sartorialists with an appreciation for heritage menswear garments.
The traditional B3 jacket is Eastman’s bread and butter, made entirely in the UK by a small group of highly skilled leather artisans. Its faithful reiterations of the classics also include a cotton/rayon twill B-15 bomber jacket with an alpaca lining.
Cromford Leather Company
Housed on the increasingly sexy Chiltern Street in London’s Marylebone, Cromford Leather Company is a unique proposition in that it’s one of the only made-to-measure and bespoke leather outerwear makers in the world.
Saying that, the brand, which was founded in 1971, also has a knockout ready-to-wear outerwear collection, of which the flight jacket is a standout example.
Its shearling-lining ‘Douglas’ jacket is one of the finest examples of modern flight jackets you’re likely to find anywhere. Yes, they don’t come cheap, but nothing this magnificent ever does.
The Real McCoy’s
When you want to discover the very finest examples of military-minded Americana, you don’t go to America. Instead, you make a beeline for Japan, where there is no shortage of specialist brands faithfully reproducing US classics.
Foremost among them is The Real McCoy’s, which has educated itself to the production of American vintage menswear from the 1930s onwards. Naturally then, the flight jacket is one of the poster boys of their collections – notably the sheepskin B-6 bomber, a jacket released in 1943 to which McCoy’s has applied a more contemporary and minimalist finish to.
For bomber jacket enthusiasts, its olive green version of the iconic MA-1 is one of the finest we’ve ever clapped eyes on. It replicates the Nylon 66 of the original 1950s version and incorporates the same patches worn by US support units who patrolled the highways of Laos during the Vietnam War.